The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, July 14, 2008


One of the things about literature and literacy which continues to trouble me, and makes me wonder if the whole shooting match is worth the bother, is the problem of recall. A while ago Scott Pack blogged about some books which he had a record of having read, but without being able to remember a single thing about them. Given the enormous number of books he /has/ read this is hardly surprising, but it does raise the question, can you really be said to have read a book if you don't remember anything about it? Worse, even with really good recall of a book you've read several times, I'll bet that at best you retain - how much? Does 10% sound about right?

It's a false question, of course, or one which is easily answered. The books are there precisely so we don't /have/ to remember, for a start, they are there to be revisited or not as we please; and secondly, we don't remember every conversation we've ever had verbatim, but we don't deny the capacity of friends and acquaintances to shape our lives, alter our opinions, form our character, or simply make the day-to-day business of living run a little more smoothly and pleasantly.

Moreover, books are not poems or songs or tales, all of which we might be expected to remember in their entirety, certainly if we lived in a preliterate society - though even then, I suspect that most of that task would be given to specialists, tale-tellers and likewise custodians of the common word-hoard.

Lastly, it's my contention that relatively few books hold up well to re-reading. A number of times I've revisited books which I've enjoyed in the past, only to find that they have nothing more to tell me, that whatever work they had to do has been done.

What made me consider all this again was a poem I came across today which addresses, in a sideways manner, some of this question, although really it's about...well, read it and decide for yourself:


Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of

I who don't know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me

(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was,
not even

what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,

the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can't find,

and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that

a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other

in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,

assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that
most of all.

- Denise Levertov


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home